Responding to my post on Shaviro, Jeffrey Bell makes a series of interesting remarks on Latour. Bell writes:

I’d like to add a question or thought to this mix. Shaviro would be right to question an intepretation of Latour that reduces objects to being nothing but their relations. If objects are systems, however, as I understand Levi, then in the end I think Levi is (potentially) in agreement with Shaviro. The question I’d like to add concerns Latour’s concept of relative existence, which he uses to argue that an object is more autonomous the more constructed it is. As I read this, and I’m simplifying greatly, an object only is to the extent that it is networked and translates other objects, which are themselves translations and relations to other objects, and so on. This is what I take Shaviro to mean when he says that “actants do not precede their relations, but neither are they reducible to their relations.” An actant does not precede its relations for it only acquires autonomy as it becomes constructed and enmeshed in an expanding network of translations and relations (or systems); but objects are also events (in the manner of Whitehead and Deleuze) and hence they always exceed established relations and are consequently not reducible to them. This allows for the historicity of objects (a point Latour stresses repeatedly) – or it allows for their relative existence as the relative strength of the networks wax and wane. My question, in short: to the extent that this is Latour’s argument, does Latour believe in objects as is argued by OOO? It seems that OOO gives more autonomy to objects than Latour would accept. With Latour’s notion of relative existence, it would seem that an object could lose autonomy altogether – such as spontaneous fermentation did as it gave way to the autonomy of Pasteur’s microorganisms. If Latour ultimately does not believe in objects as OOO does, then perhaps Shaviro and Levi do disagree in the end (or at least I would tend to disagree with OOO).

In my view, Latour conflates two distinct issues with his principle of relativity. One issue is the durability of objects. Another issues is the existence of objects. Within the framework of onticology as well as Harman’s object-oriented philosophy, the existence of an object is binary. Objects either are or they are not. And here temporal determinations are irrelevant. A substance need not long lasting to count as a substance. It can exist for the blink of an eye and then pass out of existence. It is no less an object for all that. With that said, I do agree that objects can become more durable by entering into “alliances” or relations with other objects. Objects tend to be pretty pathetic things when divorced from relations to other objects.

From his comments above I get the sense that Bell uses the term “system” in a slightly different way than I do. I make no distinction between objects and systems, but rather treat all objects as systems. Systems are constituted by what I refer to as their “endo-relations”, which refer to the internal structure of an object. In many respects, you could say that for me– with reference to Aristotle’s distinction between form and matter –the substantiality of an object is its form, not its matter. In many instances, however, this form is an evolving and developing thing that can lead to new endo-relations or endo-structures. One of the marks of endo-structure is that no all elements composing the endo-structure are related to one another. Rather, they are related in a specific ways. This is why, as Luhmann observes, systems with very similar components can nonetheless be very different, i.e., they relate their elements differently. The example of the brain is here a good one for illustrating how a form can nonetheless evolve while remaining that particular object. Neurons can come to be linked in new ways, while old paths can atrophy and die. Here it is the continuity in time that presides over the identity of the object (a point, I think, which resonates nicely with Bell’s own meditations on system in Philosophy at the Edge of Chaos).

At any rate, I therefore draw a distinction between networks and systems. Systems are objects, whereas networks are relations among objects or systems. There’s a tendency these days to talk about brains as networks, but I don’t think this quite works. When we talk about networks, we’re talking about exo-relations among objects such that these objects do not constitute or produce one another. To be sure, they influence one another but they do not produce the other objects in their vicinity. By contrast, in autopoietic systems like the brain (it’s different for allopoietic objects) the brain produces its own elements through its elements. All of this becomes even more complicated when we recognize 1) that networks can pass a threshold where they themselves become systems or objects rather than relations among elements, and 2) we note that often the elements of an object can themselves be independent or autonomous objects (the strange mereology of OOO).

While the situation is far from being unambiguous, Latour’s tendency is to reduce objects to their actions. As Latour writes in Pandora’s Hope,

Why is an actor defined through trials? Because there is no other way to define an actor but through its action, and there is no other way to define an action but by asking what other actors are modified, transformed, perturbed, or created by the character that is the focus of attention. (122)

Remarks like this can be found all over the place in Latour. Thus in Irreductions Latour remarks that “[w]hatever resists trials is real” (1.1.5). He goes on to remark that “[t]he real is not one thing among others but rather gradients of resistance” (1.1.5.1). Likewise, in Reassembling the Social, Latour writes,

…in the first approach [the sociology of the social] every activity– law, science, technology, religion, organization, politics, management, etc. –could be related to and explained by the same social aggregates behind all of them, in the second version of sociology [the sociology of associations] there exists nothing behind those activities even though they might be linked in a way that does produce a society– or doesn’t produce one. (8)

When Latour gets around to defining what an actor is in the same text, he remarks that “[a]n ‘actor’ in the hyphenated expression of actor-network is not the source of an action but the moving target of a vast array of entities swarming towards it” (46). Latour’s tendency is to treat objects as the sum of their effects on other objects.

Here I think we encounter what is problematic in Latour’s ontology. In the first quote from Pandora’s Hope we encounter Latour raising the question of how we can know anything of objects except in terms of how they perturb other objects. In my view, such pronouncements indicate that Latour is commiting what Bhaskar calls “the epistemic fallacy”. I readily grant that we can know nothing about objects except through how they perturb other objects. But the fact that we can know nothing of objects except through how they perturb other objects is entirely different than the claim that objects are their perturbations of other objects. Perturbations of other objects are traces of objects, not objects themselves. This is a thesis that cannot be arrived at through epistemology or our access to objects precisely because objects withdraw from all their traces. We never directly encounter them, but nonetheless objects are the transcendental condition for the production of these sorts of traces. The problem is that Latour tends to elide this distinction between objects and what objects effect, reducing objects to their effects.